Peter Matthiessen’s new novel draws on “Bearing Witness” meditation retreats at Auschwitz

The next book Zen teacher and social activist Peter Matthiessen draws from his experiences meditating and Bearing Witness at Auschwitz.

Konchog Norbu
25 September 2013
Peter Matthiessen (2nd from R) joins organizer Bernie Glassman and others on the first “Bearing Witness” meditation retreat at the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp site.

An award-winning author of more than two dozen works of fiction and non-fiction, Matthiessen has chosen the former medium for In Paradise, a novel about those who embark on “a weeklong meditation retreat at the site of a World War II concentration camp, and the grief, rage, bewildering transports and upsetting revelations that surface during their time together.”

On three different occasions, including the inaugural one in 1996, Matthiessen participated in a “Bearing Witness” meditation retreat at Nazi Germany’s notorious Auschwitz-Birkenau extermination site, at which at least 1.1 million prisoners were killed, the vast majority of them Jewish. These retreats have been organized annually by Matthiessen’s fellow Zen teacher Bernie Glassman and his Zen Peacemakers project. According to the blurb for this year’s retreat, to be held in November

“Most of each day is spent sitting by the train tracks at Birkenau, both in silence and in chanting the names of the dead. There is time to walk through the vast camps, do vigils inside women’s and children’s barracks, and memorial services. Participants meet daily in small Council groups designed to create a safe place for people to share their inner experiences. The whole group meets in the evenings to bear witness to oneness in diversity.”

The Times reveals that, “Mr. Matthiessen… said he has long wanted to write about the Holocaust, but that because he is not Jewish, he did not feel qualified. ‘But approaching it as fiction — as a novelist, an artist — I eventually decided that I did,’ he said. ‘Only fiction would allow me to probe from a variety of viewpoints the great strangeness of what I had felt.’”

In Paradise will be published by Riverhead Books in spring 2014.

Konchog Norbu

Konchog Norbu

Konchog Norbu became a Buddhist in 1990 and ordained as a monk in 1993. Since then, he has overseen communications and media relations for several dharma organizations, authored the widely-read blog Dreaming of Danzan Ravjaa during a four-year stint in Mongolia, and filled his begging bowl on occasion with freelance writing and editing gigs.